You don’t get to say this so often these days in a theatre context, but: The reviews are in.
Theatre critics across the United States were swept away by Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, which streamed semi-live on YouTube Sunday night and remains viewable thanks to Broadway.com. The two-hour tribute to the great musical-theatre composer Stephen Sondheim by many of Broadway’s top talents got raves in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and even in some newspapers not named Times such as the Chicago Tribune.
My household was one of many up in Canada tuning in as well – and this Sondheim celebration certainly didn’t seem like it was going to be a COVID-19 classic at first. The broadcast got off to an unintentionally hilarious start with host Raúl Esparza accidentally interrupting the overture. His opening monologue was then muted – and viewers got a seemingly unplanned tour of his apartment complete with glimpse of his phone blowing up with panicked text messages.
It was truly wonderfully diverting to experience this disaster in real time – especially with the many Canadian musical theatre folks who were following along on social media. As Colleen and Akiva, the on-the-cusp composer-lyricist duo I profiled earlier this year, tweeted: “For all of us that won’t get to snarkily live tweet the Tonys this year...we thank you beyond measure. This is what we needed.”
When the Sondheim broadcast finally rebooted, however, it turned to be absolutely worth the wait. The broadcast was full of intimate performances of songs from many of Sondheim’s musicals, but particularly from Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, shows about art, the stories we tell and mistakes made along that way that have a lot to wisdom in them for our current moment.
The most impressive performances were Katrina Lenk’s flirtatious/creepy take on Johanna from Sweeney Todd, sung while strumming a guitar; Melissa Errico’s sweetly acted and poignant rendition of Children and Art from Sunday in the Park; and Bernadette Peters’ a capella incantation of No One is Alone, a song she only listened to from the wings when she was in the original 1987 Broadway production of Into the Woods. (That production was the introduction to Sondheim for many of my generation thanks to a PBS recording that got passed around on VHS for the next decade.).
What made Take Me to the World work so well – or so much of it work so well, anyway – is that most of the performers weren’t trying to sing for the world through their phones or webcams, but were singing to one specific person: Sondheim. That would be my advice to all those actors out there now trying out performing via Zoom, Skype or FaceTime – try to connect directly with a single friend, lover or family member on the other side of the screen. It suits the medium marvelously.
Many Canadian theatres are trying to engage with their audiences online right now – but Vancouver’s Rumble Theatre, run by artistic director Jiv Parasram, is the first theatre company I’ve seen to relaunch a season digitally.
Running from now to June, Rumble’s digital spring season began last week with Good Things to Do (on until May 2), an interactive short story conceived by playwright and recent Siminovitch protegee prize recipient Christine Quintana in collaboration with the violinist Molly MacKinnon. Composer Mishelle Cuttler and digital artist Sam MacKinnon worked on the piece as well.
Good Things to Do is a story, or dream, brought to you on your computer screen one line of text at a time – and is addressed to “you” directly. Occasionally, a prompt appears so you can respond in your own words. The whole thing kind of reminded me of the text-based adventure games I used to play on my Commodore 64 in the 1980s.
There’s a live soundscape that underscores the story – and a couple of opportunities to simply listen to it with your eyes closed. I found this very soothing. With tickets at just $5, Good Things To Do is certainly worth checking out if you want to see how theatre artists are experimenting right now outside of the (main)stream.
While the Stratford Festival is sadly shut down for the summer, its online film festival has only just begun. Yes, these filmed Shakespeare productions have long been available though CBC’s Gem app, but now, on the Stratford Festival website, they can be watched in uncut form and from anywhere in the world.
My favourite Shakespeare production of recent years will be streaming for several weeks starting on Thursday: Coriolanus, directed by Robert Lepage. Tune in at 6:30 p.m. EDT on April 30 for a pre-show chat with Lepage and star André Sills.
I interviewed Lepage about Shakespeare and Stratford before the show opened in 2018 – and you can read my four-star review here.
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